Even as India reels under its second coronavirus wave, prime minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party government has refused to reschedule a €2.2 billion project to build a new parliament building and related structures in New Delhi.
Despite widespread appeals by opposition leaders and activists, the government has proclaimed the Central Vista project in the heart of the capital an “essential service”, with an end-of-November completion deadline, despite soaring infections, which topped 360,000 on Wednesday.
On Tuesday Delhi reported 24,149 cases and 381 deaths, but health experts said the actual toll was higher, as scores of bodies were being transported to makeshift crematoriums in parks and on city streets, for immolation on serried funeral pyres.
Delhi police, who report to the federal government, have facilitated the movement of some 180 trucks and buses until April 30th to transport hundreds of workers involved in the government’s building project across the capital, in spite of a curfew imposed in the city last week to try to break the virus’s transmission chain.
In its official order, disclosed by the Scroll news website, the police directive said the building project contractors would be “allowed to continue their construction activity in view of the urgent timeline of their work”.
The fiat further stated that these vehicles would be allowed to “operate during [the] curfew and lockdown” considering the exigencies of government work.
The BJP government’s cherished project is aimed at redeveloping a 3.2km stretch, encompassing 86 acres, of the Central Vista in the city centre, which was completed after 19 years in 1931 by the British colonial administration as the centrepiece of its imperial capital.
The project envisages tearing down numerous official buildings, including red sandstone landmarks. In addition to a triangular parliament building and an accompanying secretariat facility, it includes erecting expansive residences for India’s prime minister and vice-president.
Opposition leaders and political activists oppose the project, not only over its astronomical cost, but also its overall impracticality and environmental and architectural degradation, especially as the existing structures were serviceable.
But the government has disregarded their objections and as recently as April 20th dispatched tenders to construct three of some 10 buildings in place of a grand arts centre built at huge cost in 1985.
At the height of the first wave of the pandemic last year the BJP administration invited multiple bids to build other offices and VIP residences, including the prime minister’s. “Use the money for our lives, not for our tombs, ” Mohua Moitra, an MP from the opposition Trinamool Congress Party, tweeted last week.
Earlier, Indian National Congress party head Sonia Gandhi, in a letter to Mr Modi, described the project project as "self-indulgent", adding that parliament could function comfortably within the existing building. "There is no urgent or pressing requirement that cannot be postponed until this crisis is contained," she said.
Activists said the money being spent on the building project could finance thousands of plants to generate oxygen, which was in short supply in all hospitals in Delhi and across India, resulting in hundreds of virus-infected patients dying.
“India’s Great Mughal rulers built majestic buildings across India during their 187-year rule, as did the British after them,” said a senior government official opposed to the project. The BJP, under Mr Modi, now wanted to leave behind its architectural mark on India and not even the pandemic could curtail its ambitions, he added. He declined to be identified, citing fear of repercussions.